Breonna Taylor Died Three Years Ago. Police Power Is Still Unchecked.

March 13, 2023

Three years ago today, police killed Breonna Taylor in her home during a no-knock raid. Her death caught the nation’s attention; countless other drug-war enabled killings have not.

From the escalation of the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s to today, legislatures and courts have increasingly traded the rights to life, privacy and due process for more police power. It was the drug war that made no-knock search warrants—like the one that brought police to Breonna’s door in Louisville, Kentucky—legal and widespread.

It’s time to stop this unchecked power. It’s time to invest in solutions that end police violence and restore our health and safety. To do so, we need to go beyond ending no-knock raids—because police violence enabled by the drug war doesn’t stop with them, and it didn’t stop with Breonna Taylor.

The drug war has made police the default and often deadly response to scores of everyday activities—like riding public transit and driving, attending school, or struggling with mental health—besides using drugs.

What’s more, it has incentivized these too-often-lethal actions by pumping money and other resources into local police departments through federal grants like the Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program and the 1033 program. Since their start, these programs have built up highly aggressive police forces, granting billions of dollars of drug enforcement money and free military equipment.

Decades of a failed War on Drugs have made us a country that prioritizes punitive responses over health-focused responses. In the past 30 years, the United States has spent more than $666 billion on federal drug control programs—nearly 60 percent of which has gone to drug-war policing and military, rather than to programs like harm reduction, treatment and drug education.

We found that drugs were a factor in nearly 30 percent of all cases of police killings in 2020.

These responses are fatal to many others besides Breonna Taylor. Researchers at Drug Policy Alliance analyzed each instance when police killed civilians in 2020. We read news stories, police reports and court documents to answer this question: How often do police cite drug use as a reason for initial engagement or as a justification for killing civilians?

We found that drugs were a factor in nearly 30 percent of all cases of police killings in 2020.

In some cases, like that of Carlos Adrian Ingram-Lopez in Tucson, Arizona, police responded to family members or neighbors calling 911 because their loved one was overdosing or experiencing a drug-related crisis.

In others, like that of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, Georgia, cops mentioned drugs during the incident to excuse the violence that they were inflicting.

And in many more instances, like that of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, police justified their violence in the days and weeks after the incident by invoking the victim’s alleged drug use. This trend continues: Just this year, police in Memphis, Tennessee, claimed Tyre Nichols was “on something” as they brutally killed him.

No one deserves to be killed. Drug use—real or alleged—is not an excuse for police violence.

The safest places have ended police presence in schools, public transit, parks and public housing.

The safest places around the world don’t have more police. Instead, they invest in research-backed solutions, like crisis response programs operated independently from police and led by people with lived experience. These programs offer a model that is better equipped at stabilizing individuals in crisis and linking them to the support they need.

The safest places have ended police presence in schools, public transit, parks and public housing. And they’ve invested in what we know makes our communities safer and healthier, like addiction services, community-based health care, social services, housing and education.

A different world is possible: one where Breonna Taylor would be alive, where eliminating no-knock raids is not the end goal for change but a starting point, and where proven crisis response models and other grassroots, community investments are the norm.

It is time to divest police of these responsibilities and build new response models rooted in respect, choice, confidentiality and compassion. Police should never be the gatekeepers to health and support.

In order to find safety and healing, we must prioritize health, well-being and self-determination over punishment and violence.



Photograph of street art in Minneapolis by Lorie Shaull via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previous received a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

Kassandra Frederique

Kassandra is the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that works to end the war on drugs—which has disproportionately harmed Black, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant and LGBTQ communities—and build alternatives grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. She is actively working with the In Our Names Network and other efforts across the country to resist drug war-fueled state violence. She lives in New York.

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